In 2003, just as the U.S. invaded Iraq, Madonna's "war-themed fashion show" sparked outrage — enough that she made the highly uncharacteristic choice to shelve the original video. In this oral history, 10 collaborators recall the concept, shoot, and controversy.
ON THE MORNING of September 11, 2001, Madonna was due to perform one of the final shows on her Drowned World Tour at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. By noon, the show had been rescheduled and the world had changed irrevocably.
After completing the tour, she wasted little time before getting straight back in the studio with producer Mirwais, with whom she had created most of 2000’s Music. Shaken by 9/11, Madonna was in a period of introspection, telling reporters that fame and fortune had made her oblivious to the gruesome realities of the world. She spent a year and a half creating her most politically charged, socially driven, and divisive album to date. At the top of the agenda was poking holes in the so-called American dream.
By the start of 2003, Madonna and Mirwais were putting the finishing touches on her ninth studio album, American Life. Continuing the “cyber folk” sound the pair pioneered on 2000’s Don’t Tell Me, the album ranged in subject matter from the early-childhood loss of her mother and her recent enlightening to the hollowness of celebrity, the very thing she epitomized.
The Queen of Reinvention chose to launch another new era with the album’s title track, a stomping, electroclash protest that questions America’s culture of perfectionism, the collective rat race, and the pursuit of fame. American Life would be the album’s first single, and it required a brash, in-your-face music video to match its sound and message. The idea was to use the sort of flashy, highly entertaining visuals we’d come to expect from Madonna as a Trojan horse to make statements against both the futility of war and the vapid, vulgar culture of consumerism she observed in society.
Conceived and released just as the Iraq War was breaking out, the resulting video — a confluence of haute-couture exhibitionism, cheeky self-references, and brutal war imagery — would become perhaps the most controversial moment in a career full of them. It would also mark the first time we’d witness Madonna capitulate in the face of media backlash and calls for censorship, a surprising turn from an artist who’d gleefully taken on the Vatican with 1989’s Like A Prayer video and left parents everywhere clutching their pearls with the sexually charged imagery of Justify My Love, Erotica, and her infamous Sex coffee-table book.
After much back and forth with MTV, a highly-neutered version of the American Life video was officially released on April 16, 2003. Two decades later, the team behind the video reflects on this marvelous time capsule from a truly singular period, both in Madonna’s career and in American life.
For the American Life video, Madonna assembled a team of trusted collaborators from her past, including director Jonas Åkerlund, with whom she’d worked with on videos for Music and Ray Of Light, longtime stylist Arianne Phillips, and choreographer and creative director Jamie King.
In January, a casting call went out, seeking a wide array of people to represent a number of archetypes from American life, including a “Eastern European Man (30 – 60 yrs. Old… THIN, interesting looking, great face, worn-out looking, craggy),” “4 Beautiful Models (drop-dead gorgeous w. amazing legs and bodies),” “2 Babes (very voluptuous and buxom, bimbo types, pin-up girls),” and “10 soldiers (must have long hair and be willing to shave it for the video… good-looking, really good body).”
Mirwais (music producer): The original demo was a song performed by me called Modern Life. As often happens in our collaborations, I wrote the first verse and chorus, and we both struggled for a year and half to develop and complete the final song. In the end I think it is a fucking brilliant piece of art — and not because I co-wrote and produced it!
Jamie King (choreographer): Step one [in making the video] was a meeting at Maverick [Records, Madonna’s label]. She just played the song and explained what she and Mirwais had created together. Then she sent me on my way to begin selecting a cast of models and dancers who could portray this message. For dancers, the mandate was to find a group of badass females, fierce warriors and rebels who could be her troupe and who could represent all women. This was before it was in fashion to have people of all shapes and sizes on the runway and in music videos, just one of the many ways it was really ahead of its time.
Arianne Phillips (costume designer): When we were doing the album cover shoot, which also informed the video, we were looking at a lot of rebels, iconoclasts, and revolutionaries: Everyone from Che Guevara to Patty Hearst, who was weirdly associated with revolutionaries, though it’s kind of blurry whether she was a revolutionary or a kidnap victim. Angela Davis, the Black Panthers, anybody who kind of bucked the system. “Rebel couture” was what we were going for.
Jonas Åkerlund (director): The whole fashion show idea I came up with, I think it came from her preparing for her tour. It was a really, really scary time because everybody was worried about the war.
Arianne Phillips (costume designer): Jonas’ concept was to have a war-themed fashion show. It was inspired by the absurdity of war and the absurdity of the idea of “revolutionary fashion” and catwalks being so untouchable and elitist.
Nicola Doring (video producer): We’re so detached from the reality of the world because we’re not actually in those moments unless you are physically at war. We all sit there with our beautiful clothes on while people are being killed and dismembered moment by moment. The video was bringing the audience to war in a way.
Arianne Phillips (costume designer): I reached out to my friend [fashion designer] Jeremy Scott. I knew from the start that he is aligned with Madonna, Jonas, and myself in terms of being able to turn pop culture on its head, being able to have a sense of humor and a perversity, and really being a provocateur.
Jeremy Scott (fashion designer): Ari and I were already in cahoots. I’d dressed Madonna before so there was already a relationship there. I aligned so much with the concept emotionally because of the political aspect of it.
Arianne Phillips (costume designer): [Jeremy] created all the pieces the models wear on the catwalk specifically for the video. It was just perfectly Jeremy and perfectly us. I believe it was the first collaboration that I brought him on to do with Madonna. We did a few over the years.
The original American Life video opens with those fierce warriors getting ready for battle, intercut with scenes of Madonna singing to the fashion show’s audience on enormous screens above a crucifix-shaped catwalk. Backstage, models are being hurried onto the runway by a designer, played by Scott. A harem of models in haute-couture army fatigues take to the runway, brandishing items of war paraphernalia as accessories, one soldier wearing a crop top emblazoned with the words “Fashion Victim.” Another appears in just a thong and the upper half of a translucent, camouflage burqa. “It’s always been the same,” Madonna declares. “This type of modern life is not for me.”
Onstage, the models are followed by children of the Middle East and what appears to be a struggling war prisoner. Backstage, Madonna and her gang of rebels are ready to fight, performing Jamie King’s gymnastic choreography through the back corridors before piling into a camouflage Mini Cooper — a nod to the lyrics of the song’s rap and Madonna’s real-life wheels — and driving straight through the backdrop and down the runway. After climbing through the vehicle’s sunroof, Madonna tosses a soy latte over her back and slides down the bonnet to conclude her now infamous bars by declaring: “I’d like to express my extreme point of view. I’m not a Christian and I’m not a Jew. I’m just living out the American dream and I’ve just realized that nothing is what it seems.”
Things escalate. Madonna mounts her vehicle to take the reins of an industrial water hose and blasts the crowd of paparazzi and fashionistas. Scenes of dismembered and wounded soldiers being dragged down the catwalk by medics are intercut with actual news footage from war-torn countries — children covered in blood on stretchers, fighter jets dropping missiles, a toddler holding an assault rifle, and mothers carrying babies out of demolished homes. A woman in a headscarf runs down the catwalk engulfed in flames as bombs detonate, sending model soldiers flying. Madonna accelerates the Mini through the audience and uses her teeth to pull the pin on a hand grenade, throwing it into the crowd, laughing maniacally as she drives.
There are multiple alternative endings for the video in circulation online. In one cut, the grenade lands on the catwalk, and we see Madonna on the stage screens, putting her hands over her ears as the bomb ticks down. In another edit, the grenade is caught mid-air by a George Bush lookalike who reveals it to be a lighter, which he uses to light his cigar with a smile. In another, Bush is seen sharing the cigar with a Saddam Hussein double before planting a kiss on his cheek. This version was later used as a backdrop to American Life on the star’s Re-Invention Tour.
Jonas Åkerlund (director): It was a very ambitious shoot. It was all shot on a stage here in L.A. over at least three days. There were so many extras, I remember it was the first time people had to check in their phones before they came into the studio. Not because of pictures but because we were worried about the song being recorded and leaking.
Arianne Phillips (costume designer): She wore two main costumes. The first was a camouflage look I made. I wanted it to be authentic so I used American-woodland-print camouflage fabric. The vision was of her as a military leader with, of course, some leather bondage pieces over it. We also asked Madonna’s friend Stella McCartney to make something for us specifically for the video, which is the look seen in the beauty shot where she’s singing with the hat on.
Jeremy Scott (fashion designer): I’ll never forget when I put all the different looks on the models, Madonna sat next to me to style each one, like how I would do for a show with a stylist. I was like, “Wow, she’s very good at this.” She had one adjustment, like a true fashion editor. She was like, “I see a kilt… Can you get me a camouflage kilt?” So I had to whip one up in a matter of minutes practically.
Jamie King (choreographer): It’s really a progression. The bathroom is so important as the first scene because she’s gathering her troupe of females and getting them ready to fight the system. You see her writing “Protect Me” with a knife on the bathroom stall. People don’t know, but that’s all choreographed. With Madonna, everything is rehearsed down to the last detail so we spent days practicing that again and again on cardboard so she’d be able to inscribe it onto the bathroom stall to the exact right timing of the music. It’s this ironic statement of like … but are we protected? Look what we’re doing, we’re sending our children off to war to, sometimes, die.
Jonas Åkerlund (director): I was very specific about the fashion show starting one way and building up to what it became at the end, having the audience applauding and thinking it’s all part of the show. It has a strong sense of irony to it.
Jeremy Scott (fashion designer): I saw the extras on set and the George Bush lookalike, and I remember thinking “Oh, yeah, this is gonna be thought provoking,” but I mean, it’s Madonna. She was thought provoking since I was admiring her in high school.
Jonas Åkerlund (director): There’s also lookalikes for Donatella Versace and Jack Nicholson, and I think the Hilton sisters. It wasn’t anything personal to those people. It was just a fun way of showing how extreme these two worlds are.
Nicola Doring (video producer): I think we had Gaddafi in there as well, or was it Saddam? And I think there was an Anna Wintour.
Eric Broms (director of photography): I remember one of the fashionistas in the front row was this bald guy who was working as the host at the Bar Marmont.
Constance Cooper (extra): I was working at the Chateau Marmont, and Jonas was living at the hotel a lot of the time. He knew my drag reputation, and we’d worked together on the video for Beautiful by Christina Aguilera. When he asked me to be in this video, he said, “I’m having all these celebrity lookalikes in the front row of a fashion show.” I said, “Oh, who am I going to be?” and he said, “Well, yourself, of course.”
Jeremy Scott (fashion designer): Jonas explained to me the parallel between me sending the models out to the runway and a general sending soldiers out to die at war. So I’m doing what I would do backstage at a show, like “OK, you’re next, go, go!”
Jamie King (choreographer): It progresses to the hallway scene, where [Madonna] is at her most defiant. She’s gathered her group and we have that really strong choreography, coming straight at camera, right at Jonas.
Jonas Åkerlund (director): I remember we had this handicapped person with one leg on the runway, and the little children.
Peter Törenstam (director of special effects): It was surreal watching all the gore on the catwalk and the fashion world folk just applauding and laughing until they noticed it’s for real.
Jamie King (choreographer): It was horrifying because we were re-creating acts of war that we’d only seen on TV. But it was important — we needed to have this graphic tone and show the reality of the destruction of war, because we never want to be desensitized to it.
Constance Cooper (extra): All we did was sit in the front row for the whole shoot and watch Madonna and her dancers work on the runway. It was the dream job, watching Madonna working her ass off while I sat and laughed, because we were supposed to laugh at all the war scenes on the runway. We were meant to be a jaded, affluent Hollywood audience who couldn’t have cared less about the war.
Jamie King (choreographer): One scene that sticks with me forever is the two young girls with headscarves who come down the runway together but then are scared by our male models in army fatigues and they go running. That was hard to create and to watch, but it was also hard for the performers to execute: having to explain that to these young girls; and get them to act fearful was challenging, but they understood the message. That’s the good thing about Madonna and Jonas: We all had a very clear vision and message that we knew needed to be portrayed. Making sure everyone understood it before we even stepped into the room was very important.
Arianne Phillips (costume designer): I love the bit on the car. It was crazy fun on set. I remember being worried that [Madonna] was going to slip on the roof. I know that car got banged up quite a bit. In real life she was driving a Mini Cooper at the time.
Jamie King (choreographer): Then she sprays everyone in the audience with that giant water hose. That was like our slap in the face. Essentially what she’s saying is “Fucking wake up!”
Eric Broms (director of photography): I like that Jonas pushed it that far. I don’t think anybody was expecting body parts flying around and blood on the catwalk. But when you’re shooting, you’re so focused on getting the shots, you kind of forget about those things.
Nicola Doring (video producer): Reese Witherspoon was shooting a film on the lot and very sweetly brought cookies over for Madonna and her family. Meanwhile we’re in there with army men blowing people up.
Jamie King (choreographer): I first met my boyfriend, Shawn, on this shoot — he’s one of the models. He scares the two girls, and he’s the soldier that has his guts blown out.
Shawn Breathwaite (model): In the rehearsal, when we were all doing our model walks, Madonna jumped onstage and was like, “You guys don’t know what the fuck you’re doing. Watch me walk.” She grabbed one of our jackets, put it over her shoulder, and did the best model walk of all time.
Jamie King (choreographer): Typical Madonna!
After filming wrapped, Åkerlund and Madonna began the long, arduous process of editing the video. A Feb. 9, 2003, press release for American Life, the album, teased the video, announcing it would “[express] a panoramic view of our culture and looming war through the view of a female superhero portrayed by Madonna. Starting as a runway show of couture army fatigues, the fashion show escalates into a mad frenzy depicting the catastrophic repercussions and horrors of war.”
War was very much looming. Around the world, thousands took to the streets to join anti-war demonstrations with record attendances. In the U.S., however, despite vehement opposition to the war by many, there was also mounting support, particularly from veterans and those with family members in the armed forces. A March 25, 2003, poll by Fox News showed that 63 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of those who protested against the war. With a general public seemingly ready to support their troops, large swathes of the U.S. media followed suit and failed to question the government’s decisions and motives.
Only days after filming wrapped, details of the video began to leak to the media, starting with a post on notorious political blog the Drudge Report on Feb. 9, citing an insider source, which claimed the artist was working on what would be “the most shocking anti-war, anti-Bush statement yet to come from the show-business industry, complete with images of Iraqi children and bloody limbs.” In the subsequent weeks, as further, more specific details of the video spilled into the public consciousness, the media began to swirl into a mad frenzy of its own, with many commentators accusing Madonna of being anti-American. Entertainment Weekly reported on complaints that the still-upcoming video was “insensitive at a time of war” and The New York Times even went as far as to suggest she “may be looking at the final stages of a long career.”
MTV devoted heavy coverage to the video in the six weeks running up to its scheduled release, even as it was in dialogue with Madonna’s camp about edits that would have to be made for the network to consider airing the video. Initially, the artist was staunchly defensive of what she felt was her right to expression, explaining in a statement from Feb. 14, 2003: “I feel lucky to be an American citizen for many reasons — one of which is the right to express myself freely, especially in my work.” She went on to clarify: “I am not anti-Bush. I am not pro-Iraq. I am pro peace… As an artist, I hope this provokes thought and dialogue… don’t expect everyone to agree with my point of view. I am grateful to have the freedom to express these feelings, and that’s how I honor my country.”
Nicola Doring (video producer): We used to do postproduction in Sweden. It was tough because we had all of the stock footage clearance. We would send a version to get approved for airing, and then Jonas and Madonna would have to figure out a way to work around the comments they got back [from MTV]. Back then, there was so much censorship on everything we did, not just the Madonna stuff. You always expected to be censored back then.
Jonas Åkerlund (director): We couldn’t really figure out the ending. We cut a ton of different cersions. There’s one version where Bush lights up his own cigar, another where he shares it with Saddam Hussein.
Arianne Phillips (costume designer): At that time, MTV had so much say and power in the videos they showed. I was in the room for some of these conversations with her management about how MTV had a list of requests and demands in order to show the video. I remember Madonna putting her foot down at first and refusing to water down the video. She said, “OK, well, then we won’t show it on MTV.” She wasn’t willing to pander to them; she really wasn’t willing to be censored.
Jonas Åkerlund (director): I hated that period of making music videos. It was a super sensitive time where videos were picked apart like never before. I didn’t like working with MTV at all because they just censored the shit out of everything you did. Not until YouTube became stronger than MTV did it become creative to do music videos again.
Jeremy Scott (fashion designer): I didn’t think that the winds of the public would switch and swirl so much that [the video had to] be edited so far from what was presented first. That was definitely surprising to me.
Mirwais (music producer): I wasn’t very surprised. I even asked her, “Are you really sure about releasing this song first?” I come from Afghanistan, and one thing I know is that when it is time for war, show business and entertainment don’t count at all anymore. Moreover, this song was obviously not what the industry would call a hit single. She could have started with a more accessible song from the album, but, of course, she didn’t.
On March 20, 2003, allied forces invaded Iraq. By March 28, the tide of public opinion had turned considerably and Madonna announced she was making significant edits to the video. MTV reported the singer as saying: “We have our dream version, but it’s not the right time for it… We’ve been planning the video for months and months and months, and we didn’t know everything that was going to be happening in the world.” At that point, however, it seemed as though many of the video’s key elements would remain intact, as reports still included references to the Bush lookalike, her troupe of female rebels (described by MTV as her “chubby” and “overweight” dancers), and the fashion show.
Then, just three days after that statement, Madonna announced she was pulling the U.S. release of the video entirely (though the full, largely uncensored video had already aired on some stations in Europe by this point). “I have decided not to release my new video,” she began in a statement. “It was filmed before the war started, and I do not believe it is appropriate to air it at this time. Due to the volatile state of the world and out of sensitivity and respect to the armed forces, who I support and pray for, I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video.”
Two years later, Madonna would tell the Spanish newspaper El País that fear for her children’s lives and the potentially negative impact on then-husband Guy Ritchie’s career further motivated the decision to pull the video. “I was ready to fight, but there came a time when I remembered that I had a family,” she told the newspaper. The singer also indicated that the ostracization of the Dixie Chicks following negative remarks they made about President Bush informed her decision-making process.
On April 16, Madonna, still with a lead single and an album to promote, premiered a drastically edited version of the video following a special on VH1. The official video features just one shot of Madonna dressed in a custom Stella McCartney, army-general-inspired look, singing directly to the camera for the song’s entirety. Behind her, graphics of the flags of the world — including flags for Palestine, Puerto Rico, and Greenland — are billowing. After a month and half of anticipation and media coverage, it left most people shocked, not for its brutal imagery or insensitivity but instead for its uncharacteristic simplicity. With so little left to feast their eyes on, the most memorable moment for most viewers turned out to be the artists’ tongue-in-cheek rap verse for which she was ridiculed by many.
Jonas Åkerlund (director): I was in Sweden when she called me and said, “This video is not going to work as it is.” I couldn’t understand it. I was totally against it. I was like, “What are you saying? Like, why would we back down? We’re not backing down.” Then when I traveled to America, where people were genuinely worried about their lives and had sent their children to the war, it was a completely different view. That’s when I understood it.
Jamie King (choreographer): As an artist who was a part of the project, was it disappointing? Absolutely. So much work and thought went into it, and so much care about the overall message. I always question, as Madonna does, why? What are we afraid of? Aren’t these things that we should be talking about?
Nicola Doring (video producer): The overriding feeling for me was that it was sad that it had to happen, that people didn’t want to know the truth. What was controversial about it in reality?
Jonas Åkerlund (director): The decision to back down on the original idea was very unlike her. I was kind of used to it because I’ve been censored many times before, but in this specific case, it actually made sense.
Jeremy Scott (fashion designer): I understood it when she explained it to me herself. l remember coming to Guy Oseary’s office with her to see the real final video as it was meant to be, and her explaining that this was going to be edited down.
Jonas Åkerlund (director): Timing was not on our side. If we released the video a week before, or even a few weeks after it would have been completely different.
Jeremy Scott (fashion designer): I think a lot of what we’re talking about was because of what went down with the Dixie Chicks. They were ostracized for speaking out about President Bush. We’re also talking about Madonna, with two young children at that moment. What you’re willing to wear on your chest — I’m sure it changes when you have little ones out in the world.
Jonas Åkerlund (director): Luckily, we had the master footage of her lip-syncing, and I had just done those flag graphics for something else I was working on. So I suggested we use them. It helped that everybody knew that there was another video. I always had full confidence that the real video would eventually leak.
Eric Broms (director of photography): I mean, the flag video was like, nothing. It didn’t make sense with a song like that. There was more talk about her rapping than the video.
Mirwais (music producer): The funny thing about the rap is that people mocked her because they thought she couldn’t rap properly. I don’t agree at all. No one understood that she — well, we — decided to keep it that way. She wanted it like that; it was nothing to do with skills or vocal performance. Critics were very naive to think her performance couldn’t have simply been fixed in the studio. We kept the rap with that stiff and robotic flow and her hysterical delivery. It was a self-mockery, a statement of her own status, and, beyond all, a mockery of the music clichés of that time. It was ironic.
Bad timing undoubtedly played a massive role in the original video’s demise, although as The Guardian pointed out in its review of the album, it was shot in early February, “when even the most hopeful anti-war campaigner must have realized that conflict was inevitable.” Rewatching it two decades later, however, it is clear that the video’s proximity to the invasion was not the only area for which it was going to face criticism: Curiously few critics explored the question of whether or not the video’s use of genuine footage from war-torn countries was, on some level, exploitative. Perhaps, had the original video enjoyed a full release, Madonna would have faced an additional wave of backlash from critics asking whether it was appropriate to use images of injured Middle Eastern children to launch an album.
Putting issues of patriotism and taste to one side, the original “American Life” video, which later leaked online, was still very successful on some metrics. It is undoubtedly a highly entertaining and stylized affair, a credit to the artist and the world-class creative team she enlisted for the job. It made a number of powerful political statements that leave the viewer a little shaken, particularly after the crescendo of the video’s closing act. And central to all of this, of course, is Madonna herself, once again innovating, pushing the boundaries of what is expected from a “pop star,” and dancing like her American life depended on it.
Jonas Åkerlund (director): The message of “American Life” is as important today as ever. How much did we really move forward in life? When you do a music video with a message with the biggest star on the planet, you would hope that it has some sort of impact. But I’m not sure anybody learned anything from it.
Arianne Phillips (costume designer): The thing that’s so impressive looking at American Life today is you could replace the footage with shots of life post-pandemic, post-Trump, what’s going on in Ukraine, climate change, and it’s still as relevant today, sadly. We have to talk about it even more so.
Jamie King (choreographer): I’m just happy that I was a part of it, and that it still holds up. To this day, it’s still provocative, it still creates conversation, and it’s just as powerful and relevant now as it was then.
Mirwais (music producer): I think it’s a masterpiece that Jonas created with Madonna. Very avant-garde in terms of social meaning.
Nicola Doring (video producer): Once again, she was ahead of her time. She’s always ahead of her time.